As everyone knows by this point, Irvin Kershner died today after a prolonged illness. As everyone also knows, this gets notice because he directed The Empire Strikes Back. In a long career of filmmaking, there’s only one movie that will be used to define him.
It’s not altogether a bad thing to have that claim to fame. After all, he’s partially responsible for crafting an iconic piece of film that has withstood the test of time and come to be regarded as the de facto “favorite” for everyone who speaks about the Star Wars films.
In fact, earlier today when I mentioned his passing and that he had directed Empire, nearly everyone felt compelled to say, “that’s my favorite one.” Of course, everyone knows what a Star Wars fan I am, and so when I replied that it wasn’t my favorite there was a bit of a double-take.
This reaction diminishes Kershner’s accomplishment with the film.
We all know that Empire is the darkest of the original three films. We all know that Han wasn’t supposed to say “I know” originally and they changed it on set in a moment of improvisation. We all know that Empire is the film that provided my generation the permission to think they knew a whit about philosophy because they really liked Yoda.
Still it diminishes his work.
Kershner’s accomplishment was to help create a film worth watching after the original Star Wars. It’s easy to overlook what a big achievement that is.
Think for a moment of the films that have surprised you, changed the way you looked at the whole experience of moviemaking, and think then of any sequels that might have happened afterward.
Case in point, Superman. Your youthful self thought that Superman II was awesome because it had three (!) Super-villains in it; one line in particular, “Kneel before Zod!”, is a part of our generational lexicon.
But Superman II is trash. The footage (obviously) directed by Richard Donner is still worth watching, the other parts directed by Richard Lester is barely watchable. Nearly everything about the film fails to withstand the test of time.
Let’s move on down the road to the cult classic Highlander. This was a testament to what a little bit of ingenuity, an original concept and a dedicated cast and crew could produce with a bit of passion. It even had a tremendous soundtrack with original music by Queen which was some of the best work they ever did.
Then Highlander 2: The Quickening happened and made us all feel dirty. It also engendered a life-long dislike for the work of Michael Ironside, which he really doesn’t deserve as I’ve read he’s a really nice guy. Also, knowing how films really are made, he didn’t have any control over how craptacular the resulting the film would be.
To use a more modern example, and one far more mainstream: The Matrix. The sequel(s) to that unexpectedly enjoyable film are so stunningly bad that the longevity of the original’s popularity was reduced to ashes within years.
As a side note, the Matrix films also expose a truth that my friend Mike long bespoke: expectations are everything. Everyone went in to the first film expecting a serviceable action movie that would probably be little more than cheesy fun thanks to its insistence on having Keanu Reeves in it. When instead it wound up being an enjoyable post-modern hash of Messrs. Orwell, Gibson, Dick, Ellison, et al., we were amazed. But then the bar was set higher, and it was harder for the sequel(s) to satisfy. This speaks even more to the true accomplishment of Kershner with Empire.
He was skilled and confident enough to take the director’s chair for the sequel to a film that, at the time, was the undisputed champion of the world in terms of capturing imaginations, and help to produce something that was not only enjoyable but a worthwhile film on its own.
Is it the best Star Wars film of the six? That’s a matter of personal opinion and there’s no point to arguing it. Some people like apples more than oranges and you’ll find others that prefer pears. There are others who are happy with any of the choices depending on their mood, and they like each for different reasons.
The point is not whether he directed the “best” of anything, but rather that he took on the daunting task of building upon a cultural icon and leaving a positive mark when he did it. So positive, in fact, that I’m willing to overlook Robocop 2 in his oeuvre.
May you rest well, Mr. Kershner, and thanks for doing your part to make our collective childhood fun. You can be sure that you will be remembered for quite some time to come.